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Seven Marks: Baptism

Seven Marks: Baptism

nt church books(This continues a series that started here, and continues with part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

The second mark of a New Testament church according to Dr. David Alan Black is Christian baptism. He explains why he explicitly uses the term “Christian” with baptism. There’s a distinction there that’s important and Dave discusses it. Here’s the video. The discussion of Christian baptism begins at about 08:45.

There are several things that Dave says about baptism that I fully agree with. He believes in baptism by immersion of believers, i.e., people who make the choice to be baptized. He also believes baptism should immediately (or very closely) follow the decision. I also, however, believe that this is an area on which there should be a great deal of tolerance for differences.

For example, I attend a United Methodist congregation. The norm is to baptize infants and then confirm them as youth. I grew up in a church (Seventh-day Adventist) where one dedicated children as infants and then baptized them when they made their own decision. I made my decision to be baptized at age 9.

While I strongly prefer one option, and many of my reasons are the same as Dave’s, I am quite able to be a member of a church where the practice is different. I would note that the United Methodist Discipline does allow for baptism by immersion, so a United Methodist pastor can practice believer’s baptism by immersion. He or she could not, however, refuse to perform infant baptisms, at least as I understand it. I know that some Methodist pastors are quite dogmatic on the point. My preference would be to see a quite open choice. For example, if a family prefers some kind of baby dedication, where is the problem? Again, I also know a number of Methodist pastors who would go along with that.

I’m going to refrain from arguing the biblical material on this. I think Dave has gone over that quite well, and in this case I am substantially in agreement.

Let me bring in short quotes from our other two authors.

Ruth Fletcher brings in a completely different issue that may cause some concern to United Methodist readers, or those from any other church that has a fairly high view of sacraments. I’m quoting from Thrive, page 141:

As the church finds its way into the future, the role of clergy will shift even more than it already has. Although some ministers will preach and lead worship, many will give their time to training lay people as worship leaders and small group facilitators. Although some will offer pastoral care, that care will extend beyond the members of the church into the neighborhood. Although some will teach, that teaching will focus on equipping individuals to serve in various roles both inside and outside the church. The sacramental tasks of baptizing, leading in communion, presiding at weddings and funerals increasingly will be shared with people beyond those who are ordained.

Here I would have to say two things. First, I personally don’t see that baptism should require an ordained person. Second, as a member of a community that requires that an ordained person carry out any baptism, I will not put my first belief into practice. That is a matter of submission to the community. While I would forcefully argue for and even insist on using the community’s permission with regards to the method and time of baptism, I would also argue that where my community has a firm position, I should, as a member, live in accordance with that rule. Nevertheless I do believe that every member should be in ministry, and that ordination should not be reserved for one gift or set of gifts but should be for all. We should lay hands on and commission every member to minister using their gifts.

Let me continue with a slightly longer quote from Bruce Epperly in Transforming Acts (p. 85):

Such dramatic experiences – whether evangelical or mystical in nature – are not normative for all Christians. Some of us are born Christian. As cradle Christians, we are dedicated or baptized as infants, and then grow in grace not by drama but through a gentle, day to day walk with God. Nevertheless, most of us eventually face moments in which we have to say “no” to one way of life – or certain behaviors or lifestyles – to say “yes” to another.

Providence is both gentle and dramatic. We can experience God, while we are playing with our children and looking across the table at a beloved spouse or friend; we may also discover God in the storms of life, helpless yet saved by a power beyond ourselves.

Third, Paul’s Damascus road experience invites us to connect our spiritual experiences, whether at worship, at camp, or on the road, with discovering our vocation and mission in life. Paul is clear that his mystical experience was not an end in itself, but an invitation to a new self-understanding and vocation as God’s messenger to the Gentile world.

Bruce is talking about the dramatic conversion experience of Paul, which relates in some ways to baptism. Numerous times I’ve encountered people who do not remember a time when they did not know Jesus. They don’t recall a particular decision moment, because they were believers from as early as they can remember. In some ways, my own view of baptism as a thing to be chosen by believers relates to my own experience. I grew up in a Christian home, but I distinctly remember the time when that belief became mine rather than someone else’s. It was no longer my parents’ faith. It was mine. That was at my baptism.

A Note on Sacraments and Sacramental Acts

A Note on Sacraments and Sacramental Acts

Meditations on According to JohnI’ve generated a bit of surprise by my agreement with Dr. Herold Weiss (Meditations on According to John, chapter 18) in last Thursday’s video study from the gospel according to John (not to mention my Sunday School class), that the gospel is not attempting to institute or to teach sacraments.

As a foundation to this brief note, you might want to either read Weiss’s chapter (pp. 151-158), watch my video (about 1 hr, embedded below), or both. I’m just going to follow up on a couple of items here. I suspect not that many people will watch an hour of me talking, so I will try to make these notes self-contained.

First, the video:

My view of the sacraments is simple: I think that there are public actions and rituals that we take that reflect what is happening spiritually. I do not believe that the presence of Jesus in these activities is dependent on having ordained clergy to preside. I don’t believe that the rituals in themselves are valuable.

The value of sacramental acts is that they help us recognize and participate in the spiritual reality that is behind, in, and through them. Thus if I partake of communion, a shared meal, and then spend the following week withholding food from those in need, or cutting off fellowship from people I don’t like for various reasons, my act of communion has become a dead ritual.

Weiss discusses the difference between footwashing and communion in his chapter. One has become a sacrament and one a sacramental act, the latter rarely performed. I could perform the ritual act of footwashing, which rarely has the same impact or feeling that it would have had in Jesus’ time, and then go out and refuse to place myself in the service of others. In that case, the act of footwashing would be a dead and empty ritual as well.

In the video I relate the experience of my own baptism, at which time we celebrated, as Seventh-day Adventists do frequently, by washing one another’s feet. I was partnered with a Chamula gentleman (this occurred in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico when I was nine years old) who had walked for days to be at this event. We were both newly baptized. He laughed when it came time to wash my feet because I had shoes, while he had but sandals, and I had walked a half mile or so as opposed to days. Washing his feet was meaningful to me and has stuck with me.

Despite my views, however, I don’t go out offering formal services of the Eucharist as an unordained person. Despite the fact that I don’t think the presence of an ordained pastor should be required, this is an act that is, by nature, done in community. As a member of a United Methodist congregation, part of my duty is to act in community.

At the same time, I believe that I can and should make every meal a sacramental act. The greater joy I get from the celebration of communion in the church congregation is not that I believe God is more present there, but rather that it is an act I perform in community and covenant. Sometimes in order to be in community, we have to do things the way the community does them, whether we think these things are special or not.

At the same time I have become fully convinced of the concept of open communion, and by this I mean fully open. I have long accepted the notion that when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11, talks about taking this “unworthily” he is talking about the way in which the celebration is done, not about the character of the person receiving it.

By nature of its source, in the shared meal, and its institution, which included offering it to Judas as he prepared to betray Jesus, I think this sacramental meal is intended to invite and not to exclude. It is reaching out, not commemorating our special status as members of some inner circle. Thus communion should be offered to all both in church and when we share our meals with others. I question the idea of a Christian sacrament that celebrates membership in the club.

But, you might say, what about baptism? Surely baptism can’t be for everyone!

Yes, baptism is different, yet it is different by its very nature. It is the testimony, the ritual representation of our dying with Christ and being raised with him to new life. It is a singular (generally) event. It does not celebrate how we have become special, but rather how we have chosen to give ourselves up and become part of a community, a community that, in turn, reaches out to draw others in.

And even here we invite anyone who wishes to testify to that, anyone who wishes to become a servant.

I think this becomes a problem when we see these events as a sort of initiation, bringing us into the club of the special, in which there are other special rituals in which only other special people can take part. The “in group” view of the people of God that many of us have, consciously or not, leads us to misread scripture. The Jews weren’t chosen by God to sit around and be special. They were chosen to be a blessing. Sometimes being chosen isn’t much fun. There’s the great line in “Fiddler on the Roof” when Tevye wonders if God couldn’t choose someone else for a while.

Christians, who are often anxious to appropriate the promises made to the Jewish people, are not nearly as often anxious to appropriate the calling, the tasks, and the negative responses of others. Being chosen, being “in” with God isn’t necessarily a picnic.

In conclusion, I suppose I could say that I have a high view of sacramental acts, and that I consider sacraments to be no more and no less. My high view says God is present and active in sacramental acts. The Holy Spirit works in and through them. But just as the rituals of tabernacle and temple didn’t magically accomplish forgiveness and reconciliation, but rather accompanied God’s actions, so these sacramental acts are filled with God’s presence when done “worthily.” (Note: I’m indebted to Jacob Milgrom, author of the Anchor Bible volumes on Leviticus among many other works, for my view of the relationship between ritual and divine action. Milgrom sees this presented, in contrast to some of the surrounding religions, in the way rituals are presented in Torah.)

A Common Theme for the Epiphany 2 Lectionary

A Common Theme for the Epiphany 2 Lectionary

I’m probably going to talk about common themes later, but I noticed something interesting that might not be the first thing one would notice in these passages, and that’s a combined sense of inadequacy without God’s Spirit, and the adequacy given by the presence of God’s Spirit. In Isaiah 49, the servant is taken as an infant, and equipped by God. This parallels John 1, I think, where we do not have an expression of inadequacy, but we have the giving of the Spirit at baptism, and ministry that follows it.

Inadequacy is specifically expressed in Psalm 40:1-11 “pulled me up from the seething chasm” and “from the mud of the mire” (v. 2, NJB), and in Paul’s letters frequently, but demonstrated in our passage again through the focus on “called by the will of God (v. 1), and “relying on God” (v. 9).

Whether or not the inadequacy is expressed, in each case the preparation and the giving of the Spirit is the launching point for ministry. We talk about the baptism of Jesus as demonstrating the path that each Christian must follow. Jesus is obedient to God, even though he has not sinned and doesn’t require baptism for forgiveness of sins. But note also that Jesus is not inadequate, as we would normally think of inadequacy, but he also launches his ministry when he receives the Spirit.

There is a pattern there for modern ministry (clergy or lay) as well.